Cubs

Cubs must now face the possibility Ben Zobrist might not return this season

Cubs must now face the possibility Ben Zobrist might not return this season

When Ben Zobrist was taken out of the lineup as part of a double switch on a pleasant Monday evening in early May, nobody knew at the time that it might be his last appearance in a Cubs uniform. 

Cubs manager Joe Maddon swapped out Zobrist after he grounded into a double play to end the sixth inning in that May 6 ballgame against the Miami Marlins. 

The next day, Zobrist was scratched from the lineup roughly an hour before the game for personal reasons and was placed on administrative leave the following day. It's been more than three weeks since then and there's still no indication when — or if — Zobrist will return to the Cubs while he deals with his family situation.

Maddon spoke to Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times in Houston Tuesday evening and admitted Zobrist's absence has had an impact while also acknowledging the reality that the veteran utility player may not return in 2019.

“I have to think that way, absolutely,” Maddon told Wittenmyer.

“I hope that’s not the case. But he’s at the point now where if he chose to come back, it’s going to take him awhile to get back up to speed, too. We have to mentally be prepared that we will not have him.”

As Maddon indicated — even if Zobrist were ready to return from his personal leave today, he would probably need a few games of a rehab stint somewhere in the minor leagues to get his timing and game shape back. Three weeks off is a long time for any baseball player, let alone a guy who just turned 38 Sunday.

Zobrist has appeared in 26 games for the Cubs this season, posting a .241 average, .343 on-base percentage and only 1 extra-base hit (a double) in 83 at-bats. He's been a very valuable presence in both the lineup and clubhouse since signing with the Cubs prior to the 2016 season (which ended with Zobrist taking home World Series MVP honors).

This season, he was asked to lead off a bunch against right-handed pitchers, setting the table for Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javy Baez. Since he's been on leave, Kyle Schwarber has slid into that leadoff spot, but the Cubs still miss Zobrist's consistent quality at-bat and advanced approach at the plate, regardless of where he was hitting in the lineup or what position he was playing in the field.

Zobrist has not talked publicly about his family issues, but we know he and his wife, Julianna, are in the midst of a divorce

It's a sad situation, but the Cubs have been nothing but supportive and understand family comes first — especially for a player who was nearing the end of his playing career even before all this.

Roughly 2/3 of the MLB season remains and it's still very possible Zobrist returns, but the Cubs can't afford to think that way and must operate as if he will no longer be an option in 2019. 

Does that mean Theo Epstein's front office will have to go out and add more position player depth or acquire another veteran bat for the lineup? That remains to be seen.

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Pete Ricketts and Omaha pastor reconcile, audio of contentious meeting surfaces

Pete Ricketts and Omaha pastor reconcile, audio of contentious meeting surfaces

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts and Omaha pastor Jarrod Parker met Wednesday, after a disagreement earlier in the week sparked public conversation about the relationship between the local government and the black community.

“We embraced, and we shook hands,” Parker, the pastor of St. Mark Baptist Church in Omaha, said in a live video on Facebook. “We met and vowed to work together in a spirit of peace and reconciliation.”

It was Parker’s second video this week about Ricketts, who is also part of the Cubs family ownership, but who stepped down from the Board of Directors when he took office. On Monday, after a meeting with local government officials and black community members, Parker posted an impassioned video in which he said Ricketts called black leaders “you people.”

In a statement, Ricketts said, “I chose my words poorly, and apologized when it became apparent that I had caused offense.”

Audio reportedly of a portion of Monday's meeting surfaced and circulated online Wednesday. NBC Sports Chicago obtained a copy of that audio.

After a break in the audio, Ricketts can be heard saying, “Where the hell were all you guys when I was trying to—”

Another man cuts him off saying, “Excuse me, what did you just say?”

Several other voices chime in, drowning each other out.

Parker addressed the audio, and the criticism he's received since it surfaced, in his Facebook video.

Posted by St Mark Baptist Church on Wednesday, June 3, 2020

“There’s sound that is kind of washing out what was being said after ‘you guys.’  Let me say this, as a pastor, as a man, … I was sitting right next to him. I stand by what I said, and the governor apologized for it. I thanked him as a man for doing that.”

On Tuesday Morning, Ricketts said on a local radio station, 96.7 The Boss, that he planned to speak with Parker.

“I’m absolutely open,” Ricketts said. “I think what we want to do is let everybody’s emotions kind of cool down here a little bit, but I will follow up with the pastor and apologize to him directly and certainly I apologized to all the folks in the room yesterday as well, while we were still there.”

Parker said he’s uninterested in the argument over the meeting audio.

“I hope that this is a message that as much as we disagree and as much as we can hurt each other and be intensive,” Parker said, “we have to come back to the table. Black people, white people, young people, old people, Christian people, non-Christian, people of all faiths, all colors … we’ve got to come back together now.”

How MLB’s ‘wonderful opportunity’ might turn into a ‘catastrophic result’

How MLB’s ‘wonderful opportunity’ might turn into a ‘catastrophic result’

When Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts or any other baseball owner claims publicly they’d be better off financially by not playing a 2020 season at all rather than accept some of the players’ terms, don’t fall for it.

That’s because whatever the short-term hit — and for teams such as the Cubs it might well be substantial — the long-term damage to the sport from skipping a season over financial negotiations during a global pandemic could be “catastrophic,” according to at least one sports economist.

In fact, baseball might face more dire consequences in recouping fan interest and financial losses than its major-league sports counterparts for several reasons.

Baseball, like many industries, faces a potentially weak economy in general for the next couple of years because the impact of the COVID-19 crisis as it tries to rebound after a year of losses, regardless, noted sports economist Andrew Zimbalist said.

And sports could be further impacted by coronavirus fallout related to how many fans are allowed to gather in stadiums even by next year, and how many will be willing to do so.

But even beyond that, baseball could face a unique challenge compared to the other sports, Zimbalist said, if a season isn’t played because decades-long animus between owners and players cause these negotiations to break down.

“Especially during a time when most of America is suffering and baseball players have an average salary of almost $5 million, and owners of course are sitting on assets that are generally worth $1 billion and more, people don’t want to hear about squabbles between those two groups,” said Zimbalist, the longtime economics professor at Smith College who has published more than a dozen books on the economics of baseball and other sports.

Look no further than what happened after the 1994-95 strike and lockout, he said, when the full-season attendance equivalent in the 1995 return season represented more than a 20 percent decline from 1993.

“I would expect a similar impact now but the impact compounded for two reasons,” he said. “The economic situation [at large] is not as auspicious, and, two, all of this is happening during a pandemic when really everybody is suffering. It’s harder to understand or accept the owners and the players battling this out during a period of generalized depression and anxiety.”

Common sense? Sure. Most of us recognize the risk owners and players take anytime the millionaire-vs.-billionaire fight is waged publicly, especially at a time of such health, economic and social gravity, including the protests and unrest since the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on Memorial Day.

RELATED: Cubs' Jason Heyward on racial injustice: 'It feels like a broken record'

But if baseball expects to rebound from a season missed because of money matters following a decade of record revenues and enormous gains in franchise values, then it might want to consider long and hard what the means for doing that will be.

Ricketts told ESPN on Tuesday that “the scale of losses across the league is biblical.”

Nobody disputes teams are dealing with almost zero revenue during the pandemic shutdown or the likelihood of a season of any length resulting in steep losses, especially without fans allowed in stadiums. The Cubs have been hit especially hard by the timing of the shutdown because it coincides with costs associated with the launch of their new TV network.

Ricketts told ESPN the teams and league don’t have “a pile” of cash from recent seasons of record industry revenues, because, he said, teams put that money back into their teams, including payrolls.

“No one expects to have to draw down on the reserves from the past,” Ricketts said. "Every team has to figure out a way to plug the hole.”

That would seem to make an offer by the union to defer a percentage of salaries a viable solution in negotiations. But Zimbalist said that while some teams might have a cash-flow problem, he doesn’t believe the league or teams generally face that issue — rendering deferrals with interest of “minimal value.”

Whatever it takes to close the gap in negotiations, that ticking baseball is hearing could start sounding a lot more like a detonation device than a clock before long.

If they cancel the season and try to dig out later, there’s no Cal Ripken Jr. consecutive-games streak just waiting to resume and provide a made-for-TV, record-setting moment.

Not only are there no Sammy Sosas and Mark McGwires on the visible horizon, but even that boost of interest to the game in 1998 turned a few years later into one if its biggest scandals.

And this, perhaps most of all: The average baseball fan is a white guy in his 50s — the game’s core consumer is aging out fast with the generations behind him too often showing indifference to an increasingly slow-paced game with decreasing action and more strikeouts than hits.

“A greater sensitivity of fan response in part because of shifting culture across the generations? I think that’s true,” said Zimbalist, who includes in that the increasing choices and popularity of video games.

“Baseball’s status as a national pastime is certainly being challenged,” he said. “Those elements will certainly complicate baseball’s effort to rejuvenate their fan base if they don’t come back.

“The other side of the coin,” he added, “is if they do come back and play baseball this summer, when people are basically starving for sports, there’s potentially an opportunity to extend its allure to more and more people and generate a level of passion and avidity that baseball hasn’t seen in a while.

"There’s a wonderful opportunity awaiting them if they can get their act together, and there’s an almost catastrophic result if they can’t. … I think both sides are fully aware of that.”

RELATED: Major League Baseball swinging and missing on big opportunity

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